GRASONVILLE — Summertime fondly reminds me of my father’s introduction to boating when we lived on the Wye River. Catching rock fish, setting out decoys, or crabbing are some fond boating memories. Sadly, many families associate boating with the loss of a loved one due to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas that you cannot smell, see, or taste. It is generated when carbon-based fuels (such as gasoline or propane) are burned. Carbon monoxide enters your bloodstream through your lungs and replaces the oxygen we need to live, causing organ damage and ultimately death. Engines, generators, ranges, space heaters, and water heaters all produce CO. Ordinarily, the level of CO these devices create is not problematic. The danger occurs, however, if these are not professionally installed and maintained or if not appropriately ventilated.
According to a 2015 report by the National Library of Medicine, “Carbon monoxide-related accidents involving recreational boating constitute an important and under recognized cause of injury and death in the United States.” U.S. Coast Guard statistics revealed that between 1990-2015 there were 872 reported CO poisonings and 174 deaths. Furthermore, a Coast Guard report in 2017 ranks CO poisoning as 5th top known cause of boating deaths and the most common illness experienced by boaters.
Normally, CO is associated with closed environments and poorly vented generators, vehicles, or open sources of combustion. Closed cabins on houseboats or cabin cruisers can be fatal with accumulated CO, so CO monitors should be installed, and the cabin regularly vented. Toxic levels of CO can also accumulate in the open air. Idling or slowly cruising can generate an increase in CO in the cockpit, cabin, bridge, or aft deck. Preoccupied boaters may ignore the potential symptoms of CO poisoning and/or blame them on seasickness or over exposure to the sun.
The greatest concentrations of CO can be found at the stern in what is called the “death zone,” that area just above the water surface or at the transom, where the exhaust from engines and generators vents. Therefore, this a dangerous place to hang out or swim. Also, skiing, tubing, surfing, or wakeboarding within 20 feet of the boat exposes people to higher levels of CO. Carbon monoxide poisoning can kill a sleeping or intoxicated occupant before ever experiencing symptoms. Carbon monoxide poisoning is a factor in many drownings, as it can make one drowsy, not able to react quickly, and ultimately cause incapacitation.
Carbon monoxide poising can be prevented. Know the warning signs:
• Nausea, vomiting, or seizures
• Dazed behavior or loss of consciousness
If you or anyone on the boat experiences any of these symptoms, get out in the fresh air and seek medical assistance immediatley.
• Install and daily test a battery powered CO detector.
• Regularly schedule engine and exhaust system inspections by trained professionals.
• Recognize that CO levels can quickly accumulate.
• Train all passengers on the warning and prevention tips.
• Remain vigilant to everyone’s condition.
• Avoid sitting or swimming at the rear of the boat while the engine or generator operates. If you must do so, wait 15 minutes after the engine or generator has shut off to allow gases to dissipate.
• Do not dock, anchor, or raft within 20 feet of other boats with running engines or generators.
Summer is a season for enjoying the great outdoors, and especially from the water. With proper attention to safety protocols and vigilance with all aboard your boat, this can be your best and safest boating season ever.